Asia’s most outrageous transportation

Posted by Matt Van Hattem
on Tuesday, April 5, 2011

There must be hundreds of different ideas for moving people by public transportation. I found some unique twists on familiar themes during a visit to Asia last December. (You can read about Asia's high speed trains in the April 2011 issue of Trains Magazine.)

With each new experience, I felt like Charles Darwin finding a slightly different mockingbird at each Galapagos island. Here are some of the transit highlights from my trip.

Hong Kong, China - Double deck trams

Hong Kong is one of just three places in the world where you can find double-deck streetcars (Blackpool, England, and Alexandria, Egypt, are the others). Like London's two-level buses, Hong Kong's streetcars are a transit icon. The first double-deck version appeared in 1912, eight years after the city's first tram line opened.

Watching the boxy streetcars thread their way through Hong Kong's crowded streets is a marvel. Six tram lines serve the downtown Central district on a network that spans 8 route-miles. The trams are packed (they move 240,000 people a day) and the headways are tight - just seconds apart. As one tram pauses at a station or waits for a traffic light, another will pull right up behind it, leaving just inches of space between them!

The best seat of all is on the top level at the front window (the driver is directly below). The glass panes actually slide down, and there's nothing finer than sitting at an open front window on a 70-degree day with the sea breeze blowing in. You'll feel like a contented puppy on a road trip.

While you're there: Don't miss the Peak Tram, a cable car opened in 1888 that scales Hong Kong's Victoria Peak on grades reaching 48 percent. The views from the top are amazing. In suburban Tung Chung, the Ngong Ping 360 aerial tramway (at the end of the Tung Chung subway line) has extra-fare glass-bottomed cars to whisk people over hills and bays on a 3.5-mile ride to see the Big Buddha on Lantau Island.

Kaohsiung, Taiwan - Subway art on steroids

Taiwan's second largest city is Kaohsiung, a factory town near the island's southern tip. In 2008, this city of 1.5 million opened a two-line subway line system that made headlines in the art world for its public displays. The airport station contains the largest glass sculpture in the world; digital fish "swim" inside the virtual fish tanks at the Zuoying station (transfer point for high speed trains to Taipei); a moving light show plays on the cable suspended roof of the Kaohsiung Arena station; and the Sanduo Shopping District station has a pylon of light that shoots from platform level up into the concourse.

But nothing can match the giant "dome of light" (pictured at right) that spans the concourse of the Formosa Boulevard station, where the two subway lines intersect. The underground "dome" is made up of 6,000 illuminated, stained glass ceiling panels, arranged by artist Narcissus Quagliata to depict four themes: moon, earth, sun, and abyss (death). For a moment, you forget you're in a subway station. This could be an art gallery, or a church.

While you're there: Take a ride on Taiwan's Brown Line metro in the capital city of Taipei. The elevated 15-mile Brown (or Muzha) Line, which opened in 2009, uses driverless, rubber-tired trains governed by a sophisticated moving-block positive train control system, a technology that could someday regulate conventional passenger and freight trains.

Shanghai, China - The Bund Sightseeing Tunnel

Words cannot prepare you for a ride on this privately operated cable car. Although the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel is geared toward tourists, it still provides a legitimate way to get from one side of the Huangpu River to the other in China's largest city. The pod-shaped cars run in a 2,100-foot-long converted pedestrian tunnel beneath the water, linking the financial district/expo center on one bank with The Bund, Shanghai's famous dining and shopping area. There's a mechanical turntable at each end to rotate the cars.

The 5-minute ride is a trippy multimedia experience, with lights that sparkle, flash, and move, not to mention sound effects, projected images, odd recorded voices, and of course blow-up dolls.

Narration (in English) lets you in on the artist's twisted vision, although the brief, nonsensical explanations aren't really much help. From what I could gather, you relive the creation of the world, journey through the ocean, then venture into the hot, fiery core of the Earth itself. Even if you don't understand it all, the sheer spectacle is so bizarre you won't be disappointed. You really have to see it for yourself. (Then, please explain it to me...)

While you're there: Shanghai is filled with transit oddities:

  • A streetcar with one steel rail (for steering) and rubber tires (for propulsion) opened in 2010 to serve Zhangjiang Technology Park on the city's east side. (A similar type of vehicle operates in Nancy, France.)
  • Circling People's Square is a fleet of battery-powered buses with pantographs on their roofs, but no wires over the street. The vehicles recharge from short sections of electrified metal catenary at each bus stop. This technology was introduced in Shanghai in 2006, and now the transit agency is on its second generation of buses.
  • Shanghai South train station has a one-of-a-kind circular waiting room 886 feet in diameter with a glass-topped dome.
  • And no visit to Shanghai would be complete without a ride from Pudong Airport into the city on the 267-mph Shanghai Maglev, the fastest you can go on land. (Read more about the maglev in the April 2011 issue of Trains.)

Mutianyu, China - Great Wall of China

Even a visit to the Great Wall of China has a transportation component!

I took a bus to the Great Wall at Mutianyu, 56 miles north of Beijing, in a remote area where the wall is restored and perched atop a mountain range. There are two ways to get up the mountain: an enclosed aerial tram, or an open-air chair lift.

Despite the 30-degree weather I opted for the chair lift, and was soon soaring over trees and ravines on a breathtaking journey to the Great Wall.

Far below my feet I could follow the course of a silvery, twisting track-which is how you get back down. It's a toboggan run. (You can also take the lift or tram back down.) Each person goes down on their own sled, moving a handle to control braking and speed.

You're supposed to maintain 40 seconds of distance between sleds, and guards perched along the way will yell at you if you get too close to the sled in front. It's a fun, unforgettable way to conclude your visit. Signs posted along the route warn you to slow down for sharp curves ahead. I heeded them, not wanting to attempt a "Dukes of Hazzard" moment at one of the most famous locations on Earth.

While you're there: You can also take a train from Beijing's North Station to the Badaling section of the Great Wall. The diesel-powered trains use part of a mountain railroad built in the early 20th century to reach Mongolia. The ride takes 69 minutes and includes a switchback one stop before the Badaling station (see for more details). From the station, the Great Wall is about a mile's walk - at least until repairs are completed to the aerial tram that links the station and the wall.

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